Watermelon is a leitmotif of Blackface memorabilia that flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Depictions of African Americans ravenously eating the fruit helped perpetuate the myth of our collective fondness for it; and reinforce ideas of an inferior race, stereotyped as being shiftless and “interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon.”  Ceramic knickknacks like the one pictured above are typical in that the fruit wedge mimics the grin of the eaters. It also serves to emphasize their exaggerated red lip-color and darkly-painted skin, features that starkly contrast the whites of their bug-eyes. Sadly, these minstrel caricatures are not the worst of them. Depictions of adult men could be far more grotesque; they were often portrayed as having mouths as big as a watermelon itself. While this kind of imagery is seen less frequently today, it’s certainly not a thing of the past. Google search President Obama and you’ll find plenty.
New York-based artist Simone Leigh had the watermelon stereotype in mind when she began casting molds from the fruit five years ago. From them she has created nearly 100 ceramic forms now installed at The Kitchen in her solo exhibition You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been. “I could have used any gourd to make molds,” said Leigh. But she saw her sculptures as an opportunity to build a new narrative, to “rewrite the watermelon.” To my surprise, Leigh called the stereotype not disgusting or debasing (as I might have) but of all things “ironic.” Then she explained: watermelon happens to evoke the same language that has been used to negatively brand the black body as “too large, overgrown, fat” and generally “lacking control.” Leigh described the fruit itself as being “kind of preternatural.” At the same time, watermelon is sensual, a so-called aphrodisiac that elicits the words juicy, ripe, and refreshing — expressions often used to compliment or objectify black female bodies. It is in fact how black bodies have been discussed and displayed over time that concerns the artist by and large.  To tell you the truth, her work isn’t about food at all.
Artist-designer Tahir Hemphill is gathering quirky facts about popular culture via Hip-Hop Word Count, his searchable directory of over 40,000 hip-hop songs. If you’ve ever wanted to know the education level needed to comprehend Lupe Fiasco’s track “Superstar” or the number of polysyllabic words used by 50 Cent in “I Get Money,” Hemphill has the answers. And those burning questions you’ve had about rappers and bubbly? He can give certain insight into that too. At the recent Talk to Me symposium organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hemphill presented his latest data set on the subject of champagne.
Created in collaboration with Steve Varga, Champagne Always Stains My Silk consists of three infographics that give us “a visual history” of champagne brand-mentions spanning thirty years of hip-hop music. What do we learn from this survey? For one thing, in the years following Jay-Z’s boycott of Cristal, the brand’s mention by other rappers declined. (One wonders how this tastemaker’s newfound interest in contemporary art will impact others in the industry.) Hemphill has also found that brand names are most commonly heard in East Coast lyrics; Cristal ranks highest followed by Dom Perignon, Moet, Asti, Chandon, and Ace of Spades. At first listen, this data is about as stimulating as rappers’ fascination with bottle poppin. How is any of this meaningful? Hemphill gives us some food for thought: “When you consider champagne as an aspirational product, this infographic tells a nuanced story of rappers’ relationship to the American Dream.”
Studying the food and drinks that cultures consume will often bring us back to a national ethos, in this case, the supposed ability to achieve prosperity through social and economic participation. When we talk about reaching the American Dream, we often think of — or want to hear about — hard work, sacrifice, and one’s steadfast resolve to rise above whatever circumstances. It seems many rappers have such a story, though it can be hard to hear through all the intemperance and foolery portrayed in hip-hop. The genre’s emphasis on material wealth, extreme celebration, and what artist Kehinde Wiley has called the “heroic desire for cash and domination that hip-hop is so defined by,” has garnered criticisms familiar in contemporary art. Take for example “pop-star” artist Jeff Koons, whose work critics have dismissed, calling it garish, empty, and all about “self-merchandising.” If these ideas have not been Koons’ very point, they have helped propel him to mainstream success. You might say the same for artists of hip-hop for whom gross consumption is part of the game.
Mainstream cookbooks tend to present a particular style of photography: food spreads done up like the models of fashion magazines. Stylized still lifes, cropped, color saturated, and Photoshopped look too perfect to be true, or sometimes even to be edible. Yet glossy pictures are said to make the best cookbooks and in turn make cookbooks best-sellers. With her new publication 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes, Italy-born photographer and former Guggenheim fellow Paola Ferrario is bucking this trend; she has forgone pictures of food altogether in favor of found photographs of people and landscapes.
Ferrario began writing 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes in 1994, but had until recently been unable to find a publisher. “Many people and agents said that it would be hard to sell because bookstores and sites would not know how to categorize it,” she explained in a recent email. “So finally, in 2010, I decided to self-publish.” Nineteen photographs purchased from flea markets and antique shops around the globe are each paired with a recipe (many of which belong to Ferrario’s family), a short text, an analysis, and a personal memoir and/or hypothetical narrative.
Ferrario’s musings on photography are as delightfully straightforward as her recipes, which include Cime di Rapa (broccoli rabe), Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil, Strange Rice, and Perfect Steak. Cheese with Pears requires little more than an appetite for both ingredients. To this the artist links a photograph of a young man standing in a “horrendous” pose (which she compares to a Giacometti sculpture) and in what she considers to be a dreadful composition. What can this photograph teach us about cooking? “This is not quite a recipe,” Ferrario explains, ”more an exercise in taste.”
Cime di Rapa is paired with an image that could have easily been part of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives; you get the sense that food was hard to come by for his subjects. With this and other photographs calling to mind the Great Depression, 19 Pictures, 22 Recipes doesn’t always inspire one to cook, yet it’s still incredibly charming.
Forrest Gump was one of those rare films that changed the way people think about random everyday stuff, from a box of chocolates to a new pair of sneakers to the way one pronounces the name Jenny. For me, the film comes to mind when- or wherever there are shrimp. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Forrest and Lieutenant Dan, following many failed attempts at shrimping and a nearly fatal hurricane, finally get their first big catch. C-shaped crustaceans wriggling on their once barren boat deck are at that point more than just food: they symbolize an entire narrative of loss and perseverance. Just imagine if Forrest and Lieutenant Dan had been artists.
Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists in residence at the University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, have dedicated three years of their practice to working as shrimpers in Galveston Bay, the second largest seafood-producing bay in the nation (after the Chesapeake). Shrimp Boat Projects was conceived five years ago, following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “After those hurricanes, shrimp boats were still an iconic symbol of the Gulf Coast, but a lot of them were idle, washed up onto the shore, or out of commission,” says Leshinsky. “Looking for ways of regenerating those boats or activating that symbol was a starting point [for us].” Moser adds that they we’re also “growing tired of the Gulf Coast only being able to define itself within the spectrum of disaster.” In looking for “a productive way” of talking about the area, the artists came to shrimping—a complex regional industry that functions at the intersection of ecology, economy, commerce, and culture.
Leshinsky and Moser are taking their work seriously, laboring almost as if their livelihoods depend on it. “It’s a goal of ours to be committed to learning the profession well enough so that what comes from it is as relevant to as many shrimpers as possible. A big part of that is paying the dues of working on the boat.” The guys recently Skyped with me from the boatyard where they have been working for the past four months, roughly twelve hours a day in relentless Texas heat, rehabbing their salvaged vessel, The Belinda K. This part of their ride has already been choppy: their boat was scheduled to launch with the beginning of the Texas Bay shrimping season in late spring, but necessary boat repairs have put them months behind schedule. In about a week, The Belinda K. will finally return to the water with Leshinsky and Moser as her deckhands. Their captains, a few hired local experts, will take turns on the boat, teaching the artists how to shrimp in their first year. “We’re going to try and go out as much as possible,” says Leshinsky. “We’re humbled by how much we need to learn.”
Miriam Simun’s The Lady Cheese Shop, installed at Michael Mut Gallery in New York for four days between April and May, served up three different types of cheese at its opening reception and tasting. All made from local breast milk, Simun’s art des fromages, made in collaboration with Chef Sarah Hymanson, offered plenty food for thought.
Now when it comes to eating, I consider myself to be fairly adventurous. Watching those crazy food challenges on The Amazing Race, I like to believe that, if put to the test, I could stomach fried rodents better than most people. It seems that for some adults the thought of breast milk is just as disgusting. So perhaps part of me was excited by the sort of dare to eat Simun’s “human cheese.” And since I was born with a severe milk allergy (now long gone), I was quite conscious that in this itsy-bitsy gallery on the Lower East Side, I would come close to having an experience I missed, quasi connecting with a bosom as a source of nourishment. “Midtown Smoke,” the only cheese that was left when I arrived, was described as being “made from the milk of a young Chinese mother living in midtown Manhattan, and a goat hailing from Northern Vermont…” As soon as the curd touched my tongue and its smoky sweet flavor hit my taste buds, I nearly puked.
Rare is the occasion when people talk about food in art without someone uttering (or at least thinking) the name Rirkrit Tiravanija. Known as “the artist who cooks,” Tiravanija began to eschew objects in favor of ingestion in 1990 with his installation-slash-performance Pad Thai, for which he cooked and served the dish to visitors of Paula Allen Gallery in New York. Two years later, he created Untitled (Free), a makeshift kitchen featuring the artist’s Thai curry, self-served by gallery-goers day after day. Tiravanija’s latest installation Fear Eats the Soul at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise serves up bowls of soup every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday through April 16. Like an open invitation to dine at a world famous restaurant free of charge, you would be a fool not to take advantage of this opportunity if you’re in New York.
On the Friday afternoon that I visited Tiravanija’s soup kitchen, it had the feeling of a friendly neighborhood eatery; I was surprised to be greeted by other visitors upon entering the space. “Would you like a bowl of soup?” asked Tiravanija’s assistant and quickly I accepted. While I selected condiments for my soup, New York magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz introduced himself, recommended a squeeze of lime, and shared his reasons for passing on cilantro. Three or so spoonfuls later, I realized two things: one, Saltz was right about that delightful zing of lime; and two, in my eagerness to try the artist’s cooking, I had failed to ask if the soup was vegetarian! Not only was it made of chicken broth, but my spoon had yet to encounter Peep-sized chunks of meat in this thick brown abyss–also known as Chicken Tortilla Soup. On one hand, I was saddened that my diet would keep me from having the full “Tiravanija experience.” On the other hand, I knew that the soup was just a catalyst for social interaction. I settled for tortilla chips and art world chatter.
Any mention of The Boston Tea Party today is likely to evoke thoughts of the current political movement, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin. That might soon change with the urban agriculture and participatory art project The Boston Tree Party, which aims to put a fresh and positive spin on this important moment in United States history. The goal is to plant 100 pairs of heirloom apple trees across Greater Boston, in effect creating a “decentralized public urban orchard.” On April 10, founder and artist Lisa Gross and her team of collaborators will officially launch The Boston Tree Party campaign with a rally, parade, and planting; the events are collectively dubbed “The Inauguration.” In the following interview, Gross shares her motivation for the project, strategies for strengthening community through apple trees, and enlightens me on the Roxbury Russet variety.
Nicole J. Caruth: Who or what inspired The Boston Tree Party?
Lisa Gross: The idea was a result of a number of different interests, experiences, and circumstances.
I’ve had a long-time interest in particular aspects of urban agriculture—the ways it can bring diverse groups of people together while simultaneously improving the health of a community. I’ve also had a long-time obsession with fruit trees. Ever since I was a child, picking apples every fall has symbolized for me a deep experience of abundance and pleasure; there is something so visceral and enjoyable about picking an apple directly from a tree and eating it. And lastly, living in Boston, you are always surrounded by Colonial era history and kitsch. That history has become newly relevant with the rise of the contemporary Tea Party. It’s been interesting to watch the recontextualization of that history from the vantage point of the place where the historical Tea Party actually happened. I started to read a lot about the original Tea Party, and I became fascinated with how it was really a performance… In a way, it was a public performance that helped launched the movement for American Independence. I then discovered in my reading that the first apple orchard in the American Colonies was planted on Beacon Hill—the symbol of Boston power and history—and all the ideas of the project started to coalesce. I realized that planting pairs of apple trees in civic space could be a potent symbolic and political act, one that could help further a post-partisan movement in support of community and environmental health.
NJC: Tell me more about the “conceptual art” aspect of this project. How does The Boston Tree Party fit into your larger practice as an artist?
LG: I’m interested in how artists can be social innovators and catalysts for social change. In my practice, I combine tools and strategies from conceptual art, relational art, and social practice with approaches and frameworks from other disciplines like urban planning, community development, social business, experiential pedagogy, and design. I think the power of being an artist [who is] working in the social sphere is that you can work with multiple modes and languages. Clearly, there’s a practical and social aspect to the project. But the way it uses playful and performative registers, and the way it engages with history, metaphor, symbolism, and meaning-making very much comes out of contemporary art.
In 2003, the Whitechapel Gallery in London invited Martha Rosler to recreate her classic video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) as a live performance. She accepted the invitation by holding a casting call for women to reenact the piece; the “audition” would be the public event. Rosler’s documentary video, Semiotics of the Kitchen: An Audition (2011), premiered earlier this week at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) in New York.
After the screening, Rosler confessed that she was at first “annoyed and outraged” when asked to restage Semiotics of the Kitchen. Wasn’t it obvious that the piece was meant for video, not a live audience? “My work is about mediation,” Rosler stressed, and the television monitor was one of her tools. Among other misgivings, Rosler worried that the restaging might take on “a nasty, stage-managed quality” opposite the rough-and-readiness of the original. By “withholding” the glitz and glam of Hollywood in Semiotics of the Kitchen, she called attention to popular television depictions of the kitchen. “Boring is a tactic,” Rosler explained. “Everyone hated that piece for a long time.” But the artist, speaking to a packed room at EAI, seemed pleased with An Audition and even a bit charmed by the outcome: a small community of twenty-six women, rotating through a makeshift kitchen, giving their own quirky renditions of Rosler’s 1970s cooking show parody. And then there’s the irony and metaness of it all: the live performance of the video performance became another video.
An Audition was but a small part of EAI’s two-hour food-centric program. The original Semiotics also screened with Rosler’s other “kitchen videos,” A budding gourmet (1974) and The East Is Red, The West Is Bending (1977). Watching these, wherein Rosler performs the culture of American cuisine, I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s 2009 piece Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, where he wrote of the theatricality of cooking shows today. In a nutshell, he argued that Americans no longer learn to cook from television but instead how to fetishize food and enact cooking. (Rosler touched on this very topic in a post for ArtFagCity that same year.) “Cooking is a spectator sport today,” the artist decried at EAI. “We’re back to the Benihana model.”
From cotton candy rooms to painterly cakes, meaty dresses to pork rind sculpture, pickle portraiture to animated toast, this year was chock-full of good “food-art” — food inspired by art and art inspired by or involving food. So much so, that it would have been gluttonous to write this year-in-review by myself. For this post I enlisted the help of two art writers who share my passion for all things food: Andrew Russeth of the blog 16 Miles of String, and Megan Fizell of the blog Feasting on Art. Together, we’ve come up with a list of the year’s best. You might want to grab a bib in case you start to drool.
Best Food-Art Exhibition (Non-Edible): In Focus: Tasteful Pictures, Getty Center *
From 19th-century daguerreotypes to contemporary still life photography, In Focus: Tasteful Pictures contextualized the mechanical image within the genre. Paired with the recent Getty publication, Still Life in Photography, the exhibition provided a historic focus to the way art depicts our increasingly complicated relationship to food within a globalized world. With photographs by Henri-Victor Regnault, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Martin Parr, William Eggleston, Bill Owens, and Taryn Simon, few museums could draw such a feast from their collection. (MF, NC)
Best Food-Art Exhibition (Edible): Licked Sucked Stacked Stuck, Brattelboro Museum & Art Center *
Art historian Nicole Root and artist Paul Shore create sweets that are modeled on iconic contemporary artworks. They baked a brownie to reconstruct, at a miniature scale, Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room, and broke Necco wafers to form a Richard Long stone floor sculpture. Other times they opt for assisted readymades, as when they built Robert Morris’s classic mid-1960s block sculptures from sugar wafers and gum. The meticulous care that Root and Shore bring to their work suggest that they are loving tribute artists, but there is also a hint of subversion in many of the more than 70 works they have completed, which are often the “opposite of [the] serious, large-scale, large-budget works,” as Root once put it, describing a plan she and Shore hatched for a Richard Serra made of taffy. Grand and grandiose hallmarks of postwar art are shrunken down and rendered out of everyday materials, and the mystery and majesty of their source works is at least somewhat diminished. Of course, the pair’s work is no more open to the touch (or ready for the eating) than the art they transfigure. (AR)
Last month, Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York turned their main exhibition space into X-Lab, a “living” work space where the public can interact with Eyebeam’s fellows and artists-in-residence, learn about their processes, and follow the development of their projects. Among this group of artist-technophiles are resident Stefani Bardin and fellow Jon Cohrs, who are cooking up two innovative, albeit unappetizing, food projects, and making some interesting discoveries along the way.
Stefani Bardin: M2A™: The Fantastic Voyage
Bardin’s project for Eyebeam, M2A™: The Fantastic Voyage, takes viewers on a journey through the human digestive system by way of the M2A™ and the SmartPill. A quick Google search on these “creative” tools led me to texts about chronic constipation and gastrointestinal bleeding. Oh dear. Gastroenterology, the branch of medicine concerned with diseases of the stomach, intestines and associated organs, uses both devices. As Bardin explained it, the M2A™ (pictured above) is a hard capsule pill endoscope that, after being swallowed, takes pictures of what it sees in the GI tract. The SmartPill is softer and records pressure, pH levels, and temperature. The data is transmitted to a receiver worn by the patient, which is then uploaded to proprietary software and translated into graphic reports. Both pills are naturally excreted from the body. Strangely, neither device has been used to study how different foods affect the human body. Not until now, anyway. After five years of searching for a licensed physician to work with her, Bardin finally found a partner in Dr. Braden Kuo, a gastroenterologist with Harvard Medical School. Kuo will work together with Bardin as he leads the first ever clinical study to use the M2A™ and SmartPill to look at how the human body responds to processed versus whole foods. Bardin’s project for Eyebeam could make gastroenterological history.